Japanese diplomat saved thousands of Jewish lives

December 8, 2020

Column

The passport papers of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat credited with saving thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust.

Japanese diplomat saved thousands of Jewish lives

By Michael Levitt

Several weeks ago I received an invitation to participate in a virtual commemoration ceremony being hosted by the Embassy of Japan in Ottawa, dedicated to the life of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat credited with saving thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust.

Previously unaware of Sugihara, I began to research his legacy and I was amazed to find he is often called the “Japanese Schindler” as a result of his heroism and parallels between his story and the rescue efforts of German industrialist Oskar Schindler.

As I delved deeper into Sugihara’s life, I couldn’t help but wonder why his voice was silent for so many years after the war and how many other “Schindlers” remain hidden in the shadows of history.

In 1939, at the onset of the Second World War, long-time Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara found himself in Kaunas, Lithuania, tasked with intelligence gathering for the Japanese military.

As the war raged on, Sugihara became increasingly troubled by the dire situation facing Jewish refugees fleeing from the Nazis. Exit visas were necessary to travel safely, but it was difficult to find countries willing to issue them. Sugihara realized that this was where he would be able to make a difference. Sensing the imminent threat after the Soviet invasion of 1940, he began working with the Polish underground.

Sugihara started issuing 10-day visas for transit through Japan to Jewish refugees, many of whom did not qualify under Japan’s strict guidelines. Disregarding direct orders from foreign ministry officials in Tokyo, Sugihara had issued thousands of exit visas by the time he left Lithuania less than a year later. While the exact number is not known, estimates are that his actions saved more than 6,000 Jewish lives.

According to witnesses, he was still writing visas as the embassy was closing and he was being shipped out of the country. In a final act of compassion, Sugihara was seen throwing blank sheets of paper with only the consulate seal and his signature into a crowd of desperate refugees as his train pulled out of the Kaunas railway station.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, like many heroes, he rarely spoke of his wartime activities and did not believe he deserved special credit.

As the keepers of history, it’s up to all of us to recognize the actions taken by Sugihara and other heroes, to celebrate their extraordinary moral courage when millions stood by in silence.

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